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After Boris

Andy Westwood asks what lies ahead for universities and research after a tumultuous week

So where does the most extraordinary week in UK politics leave higher education and science? In a week where we’ve had three education secretaries, resignations, sackings and then reappointments, it’s reasonable to ask what might happen next.

Michelle Donelan has gone. After a brief elevation to the top job at the Department for Education, she joined the ranks of those resigning to push Boris Johnson over the edge. But unlike others she chose not to do so while remaining or returning to office. Fair play on that at least.

It’s hard not to picture Donelan’s old ministerial desk comprising unfinished letters, a draft Telegraph op-ed and some green ink scattered across the latest versions of the free speech bill. Given how closely her and her special adviser Iain Mansfield have been behind proposed reforms on free speech and skills, and tackling poor value for money, what happens to these agendas now? 

The reality has always been that any long-lasting reforms in higher education take both time and effort—and it now seems at least possible that some of these battles may be coming to an end.

This is despite Boris Johnson’s promise to his new cabinet after his resignation that the government—what’s left of it, at least—”would not seek to implement new policies or make major changes of direction, rather it would focus on delivering the agenda on which the government was elected”. He also said major fiscal decisions should be left for the next prime minister.

And even if the new, new education secretary, James Cleverly gets his feet under the table and new ministers for higher education, science and levelling up are appointed, and up to speed in the next few days, they will only have two weeks of parliamentary time to do or continue anything. This has never been a government that has been good at delivery, and it is not going to magically acquire these abilities during its death throes.

In education, the biggest challenge for current and new ministers will be to get through this summer’s exam. results.

Runners and riders

The bigger questions turn to the leadership contest and a large field representing the different factions making up the Conservative Party. First to declare was Suella Braverman, attorney general and a Brexit Spartan, promising on Radio 4 to take on the “woke rubbish”.

But the question is less whether she’ll win—she won’t—but whether such a pitch means a continuation of the culture wars that have ensnared universities directly, and indirectly. These views won’t disappear but there will be other voices and voters even among the narrow electorate of the Conservative parliamentary party and the wider membership.

There will be a substantial number that will want a less sensationalist and confrontational approach. The ending of Boris Johnson’s time in office has made much of his policy and style increasingly toxic—the continuity card is not what it used to be. Some candidates will undoubtedly try to play it for all it’s worth, to appeal to the same identity and ‘wedge’ issues that have driven policy in written months.

But there will also be those that want to strike a different tone, and offer a clear break from Johnson’s style and policy approach. They will want to show that they are different to him and that they have the ideas that will take them into the next election with at least some chance of winning it.

The opportunity to do so—as well as the scrutiny that follows—will come soon enough. Candidates are going to have to say something about their approach to Brexit and specifically to the Northern Ireland Protocol, on which hinges the immediate relationship with the EU, and other European and world leaders.

The more sensible candidates will be less likely to restrict future options by committing to the same hardline approach. They will have quietly noted Starmer’s shift last week and the lack of hysteria that greeted it. All of this will have a direct impact on science, research and universities because a more pragmatic rather than dogmatic approach could see us save Horizon membership at the 11th hour.

All will be pressed hard on their economic strategies. On how the UK can grow and improve productivity and how in turn they will tackle the cost of living crisis. Ultimately this will depend on a sensible discussion about skills and human capital, science and innovation and how to address our longstanding problems of spatial inequality.

We may not call that ‘levelling up’ much longer, but the problems and their influence on our politics do not disappear with Johnson. Regional and local inequalities remain a big feature of our poor economic performance overall and will still dominate both the campaigning and the outcome of the next general election.

The favourites as the race begins will include Ben Wallace, Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid, Nadhim Zahawi and Penny Mordaunt. Jeremy Hunt, Tom Tugendhat and Grant Shapps too. Those most likely to be offering some of the same tone and substance as Johnson will be Liz Truss, Suella Braverman and Steve Baker.

Golden futures

For at least the former group, the culture wars that have swept up and engulfed universities since the EU referendum will not be as much of a priority as for the latter. For some, universities and science will offer more visible building blocks for economic renewal—and less lazy headlines that promise crackdowns, fights and culture wars.

The economics of growth and productivity, especially in the current context, will be more important than free speech and confected ‘wars on woke’, even though some like Braverman and Truss will be tempted to double down on these to build their credentials among the party membership. Both have been closely involved in attempts to override the Northern Ireland Protocol and will feel personally attached to the current approach and all that means for relationships with Europe.

All will be quizzed on how they are different to Johnson, as people and politicians. We will no doubt be hearing a lot about them all having stronger values and morals, but many of the candidates will know that they will also have to show differences in their policy approach.

There will be talk of tax cuts, small government and free markets—it’s near impossible to win without repeating these shibboleths—but most candidates also know that Johnson had little to offer in terms of serious policy delivery.

The more sensible, and especially those that have spent any time at the Treasury, will understand that for all the talk of boosterism and golden futures, they face significant economic challenges. That includes low—or perhaps no—growth, high inflation and imminent recession.

They know that the tools to tackle the cost of living crisis are limited and that the next two years are going to be tough. But there’s an important postscript to all this for all things in higher education and research.

The new prime minister and government—and whoever they then appoint to their cabinet and to the higher education and science briefs—will be in power for only two years before a general election. The challenges to universities are going to intensify rather than resolve themselves during that time.

Whoever wins then will have a lot more to do. That work starts now and not just for those wanting to lead the Conservatives.

Andy Westwood is professor of government practice and vice-dean for social responsibility in the faculty of humanities at the University of Manchester. He is a former adviser to the Treasury.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight